The French Settlement

Ste. Genevieve, a French Village on the Mississippi near St. Louis, 1797

During the Eighteenth Century, settlement of the North American continent became part of the larger political struggle between major European nations. Great Britain, Spain, and France vied with each other for dominance in Europe and the New World. French settlements such as Ste. Genevieve signaled the spread of French influence in Upper Louisiana. The first settlers traveled down river from French Canada, establishing French culture and political authority in the Mid-Mississippi Valley.

Ste. Genevieve was established around 1750. The town was built on a broad field along the Mississippi River, sixty-five miles downstream from the site on which St. Louis would arise some fourteen years later. After a disastrous flood in 1785, the village moved inland, where it thrived. By 1797, it had become a prosperous French colony with customs and architecture patterned after the Norman French heritage of its founders.

The Right of Deposit Withdrawn at New Orleans, October 18, 1802

During the Napoleonic period, control of the Louisiana Territory continued to be bound to European politics. France wanted to maintain a strong maritime power in the New World to oppose Great Britain. Spain wanted to restrict the expansion of the United States. The Louisiana Territory and the port of New Orleans became the pressure points for the conflict between these four nations.

Although France re-acquired Louisiana in 1800 from Spain, Spanish officials continued to administer the territory. In 1802, the Spanish Intendant of New Orleans withdrew the Right of Deposit to American commerce. The withdrawal of the Right of Deposit, issued on October 18, 1802, meant that American goods brought by flatboats down the Mississippi could not be deposited or stored at the port for later overseas shipment.

The crisis forced President Jefferson to declare that the control of the Mississippi was crucial to the interests of the United States. Jefferson sent diplomatic envoys to Paris with instructions to try to buy New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Napoleon planned new military campaigns to expand French control over Europe. The French consequently found themselves overextended in North America. The strong American reaction to the Spanish Intendant's closure of the Port of New Orleans convinced the French of the futility of retaining the territory. French officials amazed the American envoys by offering to sell not just New Orleans, but all of Louisiana. The United States purchased the territory for the bargain price of fifteen million dollars.

The Transfer of Upper Louisiana to the United States at St. Louis, March 9-10, 1804

The United States acquired the Territory of Louisiana from the French in May 1803. Although France had re-acquired the territory from Spain as a result of a secret treaty in 1800, Spain was still administering Upper Louisiana when the Louisiana Purchase occurred. The Louisiana Territory was passed from Spain to France, and then to the United States in a unique ceremony held in St. Louis on March 9-10, 1804.

Captain Charles De Hault Delassus, the Spanish Commandant at St. Louis, ordered the transfer ceremonies to take place in front of the Government House. French authorities in New Orleans deputized an American, Captain Amos Stoddard, to accept the territory from Spain on behalf of the French Republic. The French flag was raised on March 9.

On March 10, Captain Stoddard conveyed the territory from France to the United States, represented by Meriwether Lewis, and the United States flag was raised. That ceremony formally opened the vast lands of the Trans-Mississippi west to United States expansion.

Fort Union on the Upper Missouri River

The Louisiana Purchase placed a large segment of the North American continent under the control of the United States. The young nation faced the challenge of settling and maintaining control over the area, while man sought to exploit its natural resources.

By 1825, large numbers of frontiersmen working for fur companies had journeyed into the Upper Missouri territory to trap and trade for furs. The relationship between trappers, traders, and the native tribes became tense and sometimes violent. The United States Army was unable to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the fur trade. The large fur companies realized that they would have to provide for their own protection.

The American Fur Company, headquartered in St. Louis, attempted to control the Upper Missouri. In 1828, John Jacob Astor, the company's owner, ordered a fort to be built on the north bank of the Missouri River, five miles west of the Yellowstone River. The site became a major center for commerce between the traders and the surrounding Indian tribes. Called Fort Union, it was an impenetrable stockade of cottonwood logs with two 30-foot tall stone bastions. Supplies and barter goods brought upriver from St. Louis were exchanged for furs. For over forty years, Fort Union was the most important trading post in the Upper Missouri region.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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